30 Astonishing Facts About Death

You can be declared dead in one state and be alive in another. Here are other surprising facts about making your final exit.
Death is the start of a great adventure.
Death is the start of a great adventure. / Marc Perrella/Moment/Getty Images

Death is the start of a great adventure—never mind that you might not be around for it. Here’s what we know about the great beyond.

1. You can be declared dead in some states but considered alive in others.

That’s mainly because two states, New York and New Jersey, allow families to reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs.

2. Eyes reveal one of the first signs of death.

One of the first visible indicators of death is when the eyes cloud over, as fluid and oxygen stop flowing to the corneas. That can happen within 10 minutes after death if the eyes were open (and 24 hours if the eyes were closed).

3. About 300 people in the U.S. are cryonically preserved.

Today, there are about 300 bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen in America in the hope that science will one day be able to bring them back to life. (Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney is not one of them.)

4. Fingernails don’t continue to grow after death.

It’s a myth that hair and nails grow after death. What really happens is that the body dries out, so the nail beds and skin on the head retract, making nails, stubble, and hair appear longer.

5. Rigor mortis is temporary.

Rigor mortis a result of certain fibers in the muscle cells becoming linked by chemical bonds, but it usually goes away in a day or two as those bonds break down. How long it lasts depends on the temperature in the environment, among other factors.

6. Putrescine and cadaverine give off the smell of death.

Two of the gases responsible for the distinctive smell of death are called putrescine and cadaverine. They’re produced when bacteria break down the amino acids ornithine and lysine, respectively

7. Dead bodies can become covered in what looks like soap.

Vanitas Still Life
A still life depicting death. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Technically known as adipocere (and sometimes also called grave wax), it’s a byproduct of decomposition that happens as the fat in a body decays under wet, anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) conditions. Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum has an adipocere-covered corpse on display, while the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., keeps its “soapman” out of public view.

8. There are more than 200 frozen corpses on Mount Everest.

Climbers and Sherpa guides who perish on Mount Everest are customarily left where they fall, because transporting a body more than 20,000 feet down the treacherous terrain would put the rescuers themselves in danger. Similarly, many explorers who died in Antarctica during the Heroic Age were also left there.

9. Europe’s bog bodies have been preserved for centuries.

The low-temperature, low-oxygen, highly acidic environmental conditions of European peat bogs can preserve bodies with remarkable detail for centuries, and even millennia. One of the most famous examples of these “bog bodies” is the Iron Age Tollund Man in Denmark. When his body was discovered in 1950, it looked so fresh his discoverers thought they’d found a recent murder victim.

10. Scientists are studying the “necrobiome.”

The “necrobiome” comprises all the bacteria and fungi in a corpse. Scientists are hoping to figure out whether changes in the microbes alone can provide clues to the time of death. The concept is known as the “microbial clock.”

11. Drinking executed people’s blood was once thought to be good for you.

People once believed that the blood of freshly executed was a health tonic, and would pay executioners a few coins to drink it warm from the gallows.

12. Yield the crow a pudding is an old slang term for death.

Others included hop the twig, snuff one’s glim, and climb the six-foot ladder.

13. Dead bodies are not inherently dangerous.

Cholera pictured as a miasma.
Cholera pictured as a miasma. / Robert Seymour, National Library of Medicine // Public Domain

Dead bodies generally aren’t dangerous just because they’re dead. But in the 19th century, there was widespread belief in “miasmatic theory,” which said that air coming from rotting corpses and other sources of decay lead to the spread of disease. This belief was more or less replaced by germ theory.

14. Embalming is not always necessary.

Embalming is rarely required by law, except in certain situation where bodies leave state borders.

15. A person produces three to nine pounds of cremains.

The average human body produces between three and nine pounds of cremated remains after being burned. The cremation chamber, known as a retort, can get as hot as 2000°F.

16. Victorians took photos of the dead.

The Victorians often took photos of dead loved ones as part of their grieving process. These postmortem photographs became keepsakes that were displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, and worn inside lockets.

17. LOL doesn’t always mean “laugh out loud.”

In at least one version of telegraph code, LOL meant “loss of life.”

18. One pope had another pope exhumed for questioning.

‘Le Jugement Du Pape Formose’ by Jean-Paul Laurens, ca. 1870.
‘Le Jugement Du Pape Formose’ by Jean-Paul Laurens, ca. 1870. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

In 897, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of a previous pope, Formosus, exhumed, perched on a throne, and questioned about his “crimes” (which were mostly about being on the wrong side of a political struggle.) The event is known as the Cadaver Synod.

19. The term mortician was invented by the funeral industry.

A PR campaign by the funeral industry felt mortician was more customer-friendly than undertaker. The term was chosen after a call for ideas in Embalmer’s Monthly.

20. Abraham Lincoln popularized embalming.

The embalming of Abraham Lincoln for the journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, is widely credited with encouraging everyday acceptance of the practice.

21. Dance parties can be deadly.

You’re more likely to be killed at a dance party than while skydiving.

22. Mummies were once used as paint.

Between the 16th and the early 20th centuries, artists used ground-up mummies as paint pigment. (It was also thought to be a potent medicine.)

23. Being buried “6 feet under” started with the Great Plague.

'The Pestelence 1665', Artist: Anonymous
'The Pestelence 1665,' a drawing depicting the Great Plague of London. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The idea that graves need to be 6 feet deep comes from a 1665 plague outbreak in England, when the mayor of London decreed the burial depth to limit the spread of disease.

24. No Mormon mourning is complete without Mormon funeral potatoes.

The cheesy casserole usually involves cornflakes. Other foods associated with death include pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), traditionally eaten on Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico; ossa dei morti (“bones of the dead”) cookies in Italy, meant to represent the bones of dead saints; and Victorian funeral biscuits.

25. It’s not illegal to die in Longyearbyen, Norway.

Contrary to popular reports, you’re allowed to die in Longyearbyen, the unofficial capital of Svalbard. But since the Arctic outpost has no nursing homes and only a small hospital, residents are required to move to the mainland once they become elderly. It is true that it’s so cold there bodies barely decompose.

26. Human composting is legal in several states.

Human composting, in which bodies decompose into dirt in reusable “recomposition vessels,” has been legalized in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Vermont, and New York. The results don’t smell, and are suitable for use in the garden.

27. People in Colorado celebrate a frozen dead guy every year.

The Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado, is held each year in honor of a 110-year-old corpse located in a local Tuff Shed and surrounded by dry ice (it’s a DIY cryonics set-up). The festival features coffin racing, frozen salmon tossing, costumed polar plunging, and frozen t-shirt contests.

28. Safety coffins were meant to protect people from being buried alive.

Safety Coffin
A diagram of a safety coffin. / Three Lions/GettyImages

In the 19th century, several inventors came up with “safety coffins” equipped with bells, flags, and air tubes and designed to help people avoid being buried alive.

29. Victorian men were expected to mourn less than Victorian women.

Although the etiquette guides for Victorian mourning varied widely, widows mourned for a total of two-and-a-half years, while widowers mourned for three months.

30. King Charles II paid a bundle for a tincture made from human skulls.

In the 17th century and beyond, human skulls were soaked in alcohol to create a tincture called “the King’s drops” that was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and “all fevers putrid or pestilential,” among other ailments. King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe.

A version of this article was published in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.